Tiffany Dena Loftin: Vision, solutions will strengthen labor movement

Tiffany Dena Loftin sums up the current state of the Labor Movement in five words: “We are on the defense.”

As the racial justice program coordinator for the AFL-CIO’s Civil, Human and Women’s Rights Department, Loftin travels the country to talk to organizers about racial and economic justice in the Labor Movement and in the community.

“When I talk to organizers, I hear about a lot of problems,” she said. “They tell me we’ve got right-to-work, our workers got laid off, our benefits got cancelled, the budget was cut, Congress didn’t vote the way we wanted them to.”

Loftin said that while those issues are important, organizers often times don’t focus enough on being solution oriented and presenting what the vision looks like for the world they WANT to live in.

“If we want to build and recruit and strengthen our Labor Movement, we have to have a vision,” she said. “We must invest in ourselves, always inspire other folks and work with the community.”

Loftin recently applauded the work of four St. Louis-area Labor/community leaders on putting that concept into action. She served as the keynote speaker at the 24th Annual Hershel Walker Peace & Justice Awards Breakfast held May 14 at the Painters District Council 58 Union Hall in St. Louis.

Wise beyond her years

At 27, Loftin is wise beyond her years on issues involving the Labor Movement, organizing campaigns, higher education and racial and economic justice. She has a dual degree in political science and ethnic studies from the University of Cailfornia – Santa Cruz and was active in her student government association.

After graduating, she was elected president of the U.S. Student Association where she led campaigns addressing student loans and the expansion of financial aid and helped in the coordination of registering 135,000 new student voters in 10 states.

Later, Loftin worked as a digital strategist in the Human Rights Department of the American Federation of Teachers. She was recently appointed by President Barack Obama to serve on the Commission on Education Excellence for African Americans in Higher Education. 

In February 2015, the AFL-CIO formed the Racial and Economic Justice Commission in response to activism surrounding the Black Lives Matter Movement shortly after the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, and the resulting unrest. Loftin was hired to coordinate and manage the commission.

She organized a series of six nationwide, day-long meetings for the newly formed commission that brought together national and local labor leaders for frank, candid and honest discussions about race and the labor movement. One of the meetings was held in St. Louis.

Knowledge through experience

Loftin knows firsthand the benefits associated with belonging to a union, receiving fair wages and benefits and class divisions because she’s lived through it. Both of Loftin’s parents were members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and her grandfather was a Teamster for 20 years.

As a child, she grew up in a three-bedroom, two-bath house in a predominately white neighborhood. She attended a private school and her family had healthcare. At age 7, her parents divorced and her mother left her job with the union benefits because her father worked at the same company.

“Because of that change, we saw a huge class difference,” Loftin said. “My mom was a single mother raising three kids. She worked two jobs, had no car and had to get on welfare, and we moved into a one-bedroom apartment in a predominantly Latino area where we attended public school and had to ride the bus.”

At the time, she didn’t really understand what had happened. She said it wasn’t until she was in college and AFSCME workers there went on strike over contract negotiations that she fully understood the strength of unions. She participated in a hunger strike in support of the union.

“Unions protect workers, families and lifestyles, Loftin said. “Nobody should have to choose between working and having a good lifestyle.”

That’s why it is so important that the Labor Movement and organizers focus on building relationships in the community and developing solutions that lead to the vision of what they want the world to look like, she said.

“The Labor Movement has never won anything without the community,” Loftin added. “It’s important that the Labor Movement remembers and understands that it is accountable to the community it lives in.”

Photo: Sheri Gassaway


Sheri Gassaway
Sheri Gassaway

Sheri Gassaway is the assistant editor of the union-owned St Louis/Southern Illinois Labor Tribune.